When you’re from the Deep South, trying to maneuver through an industry full of so-called city slickers can be exhausting. It’s not draining in the sense that city folks are far more advanced than rural natives. The taxing energy comes from ignorant questions rooted in stereotypes that city folks ask Southerners. The idea that being “country” equates to backwardness and dim minds can cloud the judgment of hip-hop fans, critics, and even graduate students at some of the world’s top universities.
As a native of Laurel, Mississippi, a town of 20,000 residents, perched just 56 miles south of Meridian, Miss.—the city that birthed 31-year-old rapper, Big K.R.I.T.—a feeling of comforting familiarity fills the space as he and I discuss some of the ridiculous questions about the ‘Sip that come our way. We chuckle over questions like, “What was it like the first time you saw a building?” or “Is it all dirt roads down there?” or “Is it still segregated down there?” Yes, a graduate student at Columbia University really asked me if segregation was still legal in Mississippi. Sadly, Andrew Fulgini argued in his book, Contesting Stereotypes and Creating Identities: Social Categories, Social Identities and Educational Participation, that cultural stereotypes do hinder forward mobility of people of color. Battling preconceived notions of being from Mississippi is a demanding feat for K.R.I.T., and myself, but we can handle it.
K.R.I.T., whose moniker is short for King Remembered In Time, is in the Rotten Apple to promote his new album, 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time. Yes, there are buildings in Meridian, but even so, the “King of the South” rapper has spent ample time in NYC. In fact, his best friend and fellow MC, Smoke DZA, is from Harlem’s infamous 116th Street, so he’s not at all awed by the city’s fast pace and tall buildings. Furthermore, K.R.I.T. has a solid fanbase in this city. He is the topic of discussion on Brooklyn blocks, in Queens barber shops, and in Uptown project hallways, where street critics argue over who’s the best MC and producer: Big K.R.I.T. or J. Cole?
New York’s sweltering summer has faded away like enigmatic stars that disappear into the universe, and the gold-tinged crisp of fall has descended upon the city. On this chilly and breezy Wednesday morning, I’m standing on the bustling intersection of Harlem’s 116th Street and Lenox Ave—the exact corner that once housed the well-known Temple No. 7, where Malcolm X taught during his days as the face of the Nation of Islam—waiting for K.R.I.T. to arrive.
A Secret Service-esque black-on-black suburban pulls up in front of Amy Ruth’s, a local soul food spot, right on time. The equally soulful MC, sporting his neatly trimmed beard, hops out of the SUV donning an all black ensemble of a pair of jeans, t-shirt and denim jacket. Despite the fatigued look on his face hiding behind his tinted frames, K.R.I.T. greets me with a smile and neglects to verbally or physically expose his fatigue. But one gets the idea that if asked, he’d gladly admit that he’s drained, but blessed.
These days, the rapper born Justin Scott is slimmer than he was two years ago. That’s because he’s exercising. He eats healthy sh*t like kale and asparagus, which further blows holes through weak theories about country boys and girls only chopping down on fried chicken, collard greens, pinto beans and cornbread. I mean, we do. But we’re also human, and aspire to be healthy like other humans from up North.
“I don’t want no eggs,” K.R.I.T. says after making our way through the tidy empty restaurant, which had just opened. Ornate hand-drawn portraits of Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, George Washington Carver and other African-Americans icons cover on the walls. “I don’t eat eggs,” K.R.I.T. continues. “[It’s] the smell. I must’ve had a bad experience when I was younger. But you know what? Greens, turnips, I hated them sh*ts growing up.”
I’ve only been with Big K.R.I.T. a few minutes and already, I’m convinced that one of the reasons for his existence is to disrupt the perceived notions people have of Mississippians. The former Meridian High School baseball player lost his virginity in the music game with the release of his mixtapes dubbed, See Me on Top Vol. I and II, respectively. That was back in 2005. Soon thereafter, the passionate rapper/producer moved to Atlanta to further pursue his dreams of rap stardom. While in the ATL, he made ends meet by selling beats to local and aspiring rappers, and (unsuccessfully) tried to peddle his mixtapes (Jeezy had the city on lock back then.) But K.R.I.T. continued recording music and making beats while sleeping on couches and eating whatever meal he could get his hands on.
His big break came in 2010 when he joined forces with Cinematic Music Group. Under CMG, K.R.I.T. made his presence felt with critically-acclaimed projects K.R.I.T. Wuz Here (2010), Return of 4eva (2011) and 4evaNaDay (2012). Through his tireless grind, mature subject matter and viciously fluid flow, K.R.I.T. gained the attention of Sha Money XL, former president of G-Unit Records. It was Sha who inked the Mississippi bredren to a lucrative deal with Def Jam. Under the exemplary label that Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin built, K.R.I.T. released Live from the Underground (2012), which peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, and Cadillactica (2014), which also debuted at No. 5 on the same chart.
Like any competitive man, K.R.I.T. wasn’t just happy with a deal. He wanted radio stations to play his songs and magazines to pen cover stories on him and his contributions to hip-hop. Most importantly, he wanted critics to recognize him as a potent lyricist and to understand Mississippi’s culture. But based on the lack of magazine covers and no radio hits, on the surface, people seemed disinterested in what K.R.I.T. had to say. It wasn’t long before he started sounding like the mad rapper.
“I went from wanting to tell people about the South, to being frustrated that they didn’t get it,” K.R.I.T. says over a bowl of shrimp and grits while Lorde croons her hit song, “Royal,” on the restaurant’s overhead. “And it plays out and shows in the aggression in some of these songs.
Songs like “King of the South” and “Mt. Olympus,” in particular, tap into that emotional vein. K.R.I.T. vented about not getting radio play and having the respect of his peers. The creative aggression that rolled off K.R.I.T.’s tongue was akin to combative energy that permeates every crevice and cell block of the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman. Yes, K.R.I.T.’s verbal leakage on the former is super aggressive, but it is also heartfelt like a Mississippi blues singer.
In fact, Parchman has been instrumental in producing timeless blues. For instance, Booker “Bukka” White, who served time in Parchman for assault, poured his agony, pain and aggression into lyrics and guitar strings during his bid at Parchman. White’s songs have been covered by Bob Dylan, and have influenced Led Zeppelin’s career. Back in Mississippi, our grandparents, aunts and uncles blast old blues icons such as Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, R.L. Burnside, Robert Johnson, and B.B. King. It was K.R.I.T.’s now-deceased grandmother who introduced him to the pain and passion of B.B. King. The young MC even collaborated with his idol on the 2012 track, “Praying Man.”
When asked about doing hip-hop versions of classic blues songs like Mississippi John Hurt’s “Take This Hammer” or mystical “Stag-O-Lee,” which has been remade by at least 400 artists, K.R.I.T. is quick to admit that he’s not into remaking classics. “I’ll see what I can do, but when something is [a] staple, I’m wary of messing it up,” he says. “It takes a lot for me to do a record over. Sampling is one thing, but re-doing the whole idea is another thing.”
Time slips by as we make small talk about the sorrow that we both feel with not being able to bring all of our folks from Laurel and Meridian on our journeys with us. But we both agree that me that everyone wasn’t meant to tag along. More importantly, our experiences in Jones (Laurel) and Lauderdale (Meridian) counties were preparation for us to perform on a world stage and represent the ‘Sip everywhere we go.
For the next hour or so, over burgers, fries, shrimp, grits and glasses of water, K.R.I.T. discusses depression, his battle with alcohol, counseling, his new eating habits (“Asparagus is king,” he insists. “That sh*t is awesome”), and relationships with God and women.
VIBE: Did you have to trick your mind to start eating kale?
Big K.R.I.T.: When I started eating healthy, I had to start fooling my brain like: ‘You know what? This isn’t what you want, but it taste like…’ Everything was vegan this. That sh*t was nasty as f**k. I had to fool myself. It ain’t real pizza, but it’s OK.
Did something happen that made you made decide to lose weight?
Being onstage and performing. The longest I’ve performed is probably an hour and 30 minutes. I perform so many songs. You think, damn, I’m in shape. But I’m not. Then we were drinking, and I just put on a lot of unwanted weight. I got up to like 220 pounds and I’m 6’1.” That’s not what I was supposed to be at the time.
People would think that being onstage performing is cardio.
That’s what I thought. Rapping is not cardio. I tell people all the time that rapping is not cardio. It’s endurance and adrenaline at the most.
I’m going through some personal issues, which has caused me to get closer to God. I use “Keep the Devil Off,” “Big K.R.I.T.” and “Higher Calling” as motivation. Do you still read your Bible?
Oh yes. Especially when I need quiet time, or I need some understanding. I have to think about what happens to me after this, so I have keep myself straight. When I put that stuff in my music, it’s a reminder of who I am and what I’m trying to be. I have to tell you about that side of myself. I don’t want to give you half of me.
Do you have a favorite verse?
[Psalms 30:5] “There will be weeping at night but joy comes in the morning.” When you get a new day to try it again, it’s like a reset button.
I use my work and school as an excuse not to get into relationships. I love the line in “Drinking Sessions”: “Sorry ain’t got a wife and kids, momma. But look at what I’m doing, momma…”
Once you get a certain age, settling down and having kids, that’s what you do. But when you’re chasing your dreams and goals, you’re set on that. You can put yourself in a position where even if you did try to have that relationship, it might hurt the other person. Being focused on yourself, it’s nothing wrong with that. But there is going to come a point where you’re going to want to share that success with someone.
I went from wanting to tell people about the South, to being frustrated that they didn’t get it. —Big K.R.I.T.
The Justin Scott half of this new album, reminds me of “Children of the World.”
I would say “Children of the World” was definitely from a place of being vulnerable. It made sense to make the Justin Scott side of the album vulnerable, and that’s why it feels like that. Even with “Drinking Sessions.” It’s hard to tell you everything in a whole bunch of songs, so let me tell you in one. But it’s my way of venting.
With the timing of JAY-Z’s 4:44 album, many people may be led to believe that he inspired other MCs to open up. But you’ve been made tracks like “Hometown Hero” and even “Children of the World,” and I really heard you open up on It’s Better This Way.
“The Vent,” “Angels”… I’ve always been one of those people who talked about my real life. And whatever society is going through, I’m affected by that, too, so I put that in my music. The double album was the concept before JAY-Z album came out. I’ve always had a hard time sequencing the transparent records with the trunk knocking records. Even 4evaNaDay was showing you that I have these two sides. It’s Better This Way is showing you that I have two sides. It’s trying to deal with the duality of it all. So I figured it out: make a double album. Create a whole body of work where it’s musical and turning my voice into an instrument and being transparent, and how I feel at the house.
I battle with mental health issues, and it happens when I leave my job or school. With that, I hear traces of depression and alcohol abuse in a few songs on the Justin Scott side.
When I first started going on tour, it was a thing to get over the anxiety with drinking. After a while it becomes what you medicate with. You don’t realize how much it controls your behavior. You don’t realize how much you think you need it. And then you start creating with it. Now it’s before you go onstage, you drink. Before you do an interview, you drink. Before you got to the studio, you drink. When you in the studio, you drink. It becomes your life.
What stage were you at with the drinking going into 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time?
Going into this album, I was dealing with trying to stop. Trying to figure out how to slow down. Trying to get healthy. During the time I lost all this weight, I was trying to live my life and figure out how to do better by myself. The depression was real because I went two years without performing. Like you said, when you leave school or work, you get down. I wasn’t making music that people can hear. It was quiet. So all my doubts and insecurities affected my energy. I have to tell people that we deal with depression, too, and let you know that I can relate to it.
Your album touches on a lot of issues that I’m dealing with. I’m not good at exposing my feelings. You have a large platform to get your feelings out. Did you talk to someone to deal with your issues before recording this album?
I talked to someone. I tell people to go talk to someone if you can. You have to get to a point where you stop hiding it and tell people. The day that you need to talk to somebody the most, and they really have the ear for it, but you’re like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to bother you.’ That’s the first thing we say. But nah, you really need to bother them. You have to let that go.
But did you seek professional help?
Oh yeah, I got professional help.
Are you comfortable sharing some of those experiences?
Man, I can’t talk about that.
Was there a particular incident that moved you to get professional help, or did the idea progress over time?
I would say between dealing with the hangovers and the overwhelming need to not go anywhere. Just in the house and trying to figure out how to fix my problems. It was a lot going on in society at the time, with police brutality, and I started to feel like music wasn’t helping people. It put me in a position where I’m like, ‘What can I do? How can I fix a problem that’s been going long before I started rapping or even thought about this?’ I used to have this idea that I wanted to save the world, but I can’t. I had O.G.’s that I could call—Bun B and David Banner. Those are people I can call.
These days, starting with It’s Better This Way, you sound like you are finding peace within yourself. On many of your past projects you sounded like the mad rapper. You may not know this, but I stay close to the streets, and we discuss you. K.R.I.T.’s name pops up in those conversations. Why be upset over not having radio hits and magazine covers?
Because I’m from a place where they didn’t realize that we were even rapping like that. Not only do I have this will to want to tell you how MIssissippi is and prove all of the things that you may see wrong, but then on the rapping side, I have to let you know that I can rap. And I’m on it with the subject matter, the music, and I can do this just like the greats. It was a lot going on and it can go from being competitive to being bitter.
But the streets dictate what’s dope. Radios and magazine have power, but the streets are the experts as to who’s dope. Again, you are in that conversation. It bothered me that you didn’t seem to understand that.
The fact that I appreciate it, but I’ve never really seek it out, and that keeps me in the mind-frame that I’m in now. I’m a very approachable person. I was always taught don’t toot your own horn. With that mentality, whether you think I’m great or not, it doesn’t stop me from doing what I need to do. And on top of that, I appreciate the fact that people are listening.
I have folks and homeboys back in Laurel that I wish I could come on this journey with me. Do you feel like that?
Of course. But also, leaving isn’t for everybody. There are times when I go back home, and I miss the solitude, miss being able to relax, I miss not being in traffic for two hours and seeing my family, and they’re comfortable and cool with that.
What do you miss most about the ‘Sip?
Looking back, the hustle and lessons learned on the streets of Laurel gave me the wisdom to maneuver in this world. What has Meridian taught you?
My faith. My patience. Being able to work through whatever. Looking at my pops, whatever they were dealing with emotionally, my mom, my grandmomma, they still were able get up and go to work. Still pay the bills. Still find a way to put food on the table. That was a very valuable lesson for me especially in this industry because there’s no clock for me to punch in. It’s just like, ‘Bruh, you gotta get up, you gotta motivate yourself, believe in something greater than you.’ I took all of that with me. So when I’m around all of these people who didn’t care about how I was raised in Mississippi, it didn’t shake me. It didn’t change my thought process.